Posted by: Bruce Duncan | March 1, 2010

Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race 2010

After such a short notice period for last years race, this year we decided in September to head back with the same team to defend our title.  We all thought we would never go back, but the draw of crossing Tierra Del Fuego was too much for all of us, not many people get the chance to go there, let alone race through the remotest parts.

February suddenly arrived, we were ready to head back.  We had managed to get the best kit around from our sponsors, and knowing what the conditions could be like from last year we packed accordingly.  With last minute changes from bike boxes to bike bags (due to many teams getting huge excess luggage fees), we met at the airport to start the long journey to Punta Arenas.

We had a 6hour stop on Santiago, where our fantastic sponsor Prunesco, Chile’s largest prune exporting company, (and 4th in the world), met us and took us for a fantastic lunch at the big Polo Club, we sat in the glorious sunshine by the roses overlooking the pitch while eating fine steaks!  Happy days.

Landing in Punta Arenas it was a different sight, heavy rain and wind, and all 4 of us wondered what on earth we were doing back here. The race organisation were there to ferry us to our nice hotel, where we would stay for a few days getting all our kit sorted, buying the required masses of food, completing kit and skills tests, attending the opening ceremony, having the course revealed to us, and finally handing in all our kit bags for the race.

The 2 days flew past, but we were all set, happy in the knowledge that our food was right for the stages, including 10 family sized pizzas to munch through at various stages!  Our kit was all sorted so we would start light for the first few sections, and then pick up our heavier weight kit for the major trek and to the finish.

Tuesday morning we all jumped on buses and headed north east to the ferry crossing to Tierra Del Fuego.  Here we were meant to kayak across the Magellan Straight to start the race,  However due to the 40 knot winds thankfully this stage was cancelled, so we all got the ferry over, a bumpy ride in itself, and began the race with an extended beach run to the start of the bike section.

Teams began to spread out early, with the good mountain runners of Swiss and Germans going into the lead.  We were not at all worried about this, a 20km run on a beach was a very small part of the overall race, and losing a few minutes would not matter.  As it was the German team overshot the transition and we came in only a minute behind the Swiss.  With our bikes in good shape, and prepared in the bike bags to only have to put the wheels on, we were away out of transition well ahead of any other teams, and onto the open roads across the plains.

Some people will be aware that the winds down this far south are pretty strong, mainly any sailors who have had the pleasure to sail past Cape Horn.  For those that don’t, imagine having to ride at almost 30degrees on your bike to stay upright, and occasionally, weighing 100kg, getting blown totally off your bike into the ditch.  We had 100km on this bike section, luckily only the first 40 or so were full on into the wind, but the cross wind was as bad, the tail wind on the other hand was fantastic, and not for the first time in the race we were blown along at almost 50kph with no peddling.

Unfortunately we had 3 punctures, which slowed us down about 10 minutes, not too bad, but meant the Swiss Team sped past us.  Again it was early in the race, and for the next trek stage which would start in the dark, we were happy to be behind so as to not have our head lights show the way to other teams.

After a short sharp climb and decent we arrived at the transition to be told that due to the winds the ferry had stopped running after our crossing, and this had led to a number of race vehicles being stuck on the main land.  These vehicles had all our transition bags, race food, and maps!  The race crew were busy doling out food to the teams, their own personal food supply at times too!  I wasn’t so happy to be given 4 tins of tuna, as I don’t like the stuff, but it was all we really had for the trek, so I’d have to eat it.

Setting off about 5 minutes behind the Swiss team, with the wrong scale map, we had to simplify our route to minimise errors.  We were happy with what we did and popped out on the road about 10km short of the checkpoint as planned.  Here we found a barn and decided to sleep for an hour to get some good early rest in, and to take rest while it was dark.  Upon waking Nicola had a few fainting spells, her body did not want to get going again, so after another 10minutes we were finally on our way, heads down into the fierce winds once more.

Arriving at PC5 in 3rd place we were happy to be told our food bags had arrived, so after a wee feast, picking up the right maps and grabbing food for the 180km bike ride to come we set off over the hills to the end of the stage.

It was nice to get some height after the barren flat lands we had crossed in the previous 24hrs, and the terrain was pretty kind, not too many spiky bushes, and firm underfoot.  We were going well until I realised that I had got the declination wrong on the bearing, having added 12º instead of subtracting.  We ended up coming out way too far left, and got very confused for 5 minutes until we all realised and sped off along the road.

The transition was at the top of a hill, we battled an even fiercer head wind to get there, walking in single file with myself at the front to shield the others.  Team Untamed New England were 5 minutes ahead of us, and the Spanish team Air Eurpoa Bimont were a few minutes after us.

Another speedy transition onto the bikes, we took less than 20minutes whereas all other teams were over an hour.  The 180km bike leg started heading up hill into the wind, we walked for a few km as it was almost impossible to ride, with no shelter in the barren landscape we knew we were in for a tough stage.

The track headed down into the valley, affording us some much needed shelter, and some fun off road riding.  Then after 20km we were back on the main gravel roads heading southwest, right into the teeth of the wind.  Getting into a good en-echelon riding position we did our best to take it in turns to shield the team from the wind and to push on as best we could, knowing that every pedal stroke we turned we were nearer the end.

After almost 100km we turned a big corner and had the winds on our backs, it was such a wonderful feeling and made us all smile and almost forget about those gruelling kms we had just pushed out.  We had a number of wee rests along the road, it was nice to stop for a minute every now and again to stretch the back and relieve the bottom from sitting for almost 13 hrs.

We reached the only checkpoint midstage on the bike leg, and were welcomed by applause from a group of environmentalists whose task it was to count the many Guanacos, a relative of the Llama found in large numbers all over the Island.  My comment of ‘what are they like to eat’ was met with silence, as they are a protected species, oops.

We pushed on heading into the dark.  From the map we had I could see there was a steep climb at the end of the stage up over a pass.  However due to the scale and quality of the map I had no idea how much of a climb, or how many switch backs there would be.  We seemed to be climbing forever well into the darkness.  Nicola, Mark and Andy all kept asking how far was it to the top, but the simple answer was that I had no idea, so I kept saying just keep going till it starts to go down.

A light steady rain had started falling, which was fine on the uphill, but when we finally reached the pass and started flying down the other side it was so cold and muddy.  Mark and Andy were sitting smugly on their bikes with mud guards, something Nicola and I hadn’t brought.

The downhill seemed to last a long time, but we finally reached the transition, expecting a lodge, as described on the map, but to just find some tents and half cleared forest.  Quickly getting changed into our trekking clothes and out of our soaking bike kit we warmed up and fed ourselves with hot pack meals and other goodies in the transition bag.

It was about 2am so we put up the tent and got 3 hrs of pretty good sleep before waking before dawn so that we would set off at day break, to maximise the daylight, knowing how crucial it was to navigate at day.

Only 100m from the transition we were back into thick forest, fighting our way up the hill and into the mountains.  We fought through and realised that we might be about to get cliffed out, so had to drop hard earned height, but luckily enough found a great path heading up to the side of a huge waterfall.  I think this was the first of many guanaco paths we followed that made our passage through the forests so much quicker.

Mike Kloser, a 5 times adventure race world champion was with us on the trek as a cameraman, and it was a great experience for us all to be there with him.  As we trekked into bigger and bigger hills it was good to chat to Mike and exchange stories from the past, and to hear about many of his exploits, whilst hopefully getting some great footage from the racers perspective, which could show people back home exactly what we were going through.

There had been a mixup somewhere along the line, and non of our climbing kit had been at PC 8 for us to pick up and take on the trek.  So as this was deliberated we were given 2 harnesses to carry to the abseil to leave there for the other teams to use as they came past.

When we arrived at PC 9, they had no idea about this, and didn’t have any spare abseil devices other than a gri gri, not the best for a big abseil, but at least we could get down and carry on.  The abseil was the only way to get down into a deep valley to continue to route, so gingerly we all got down in one piece, breathed a sigh of relief and carried on through thick forest and large boulders to the valley end.  From the maps we had it is very tricky to work out what is a cliff and what is a steepish slope, the only way to do so is by eye.  So when we got to the valley end and were facing a thick bush bash down the side of a waterfall instead of potentially a nice easy slope to walk down, we went for the bush bash, not sure if the other option might well end in a cliff.  As we got out and across the next valley floor and looked back we could see the other option would have been way faster, but in this race you never know.

Another steep climb faced us, with lots of deep gullies coming down we had to make sure our route up would be safe and not end up being stuck high up and having to back track.  We crossed 1 gully near the top, but it was fine and soon we were stood at the pass taking in yet again another stunning view of 360º mountains.  Every pass we climbed was tough yet so rewarding at the top that the effort you’d put in seemed to ebb away as you marvelled at the Darwin Range.

At 9pm that night, day 3 of the race, we arrived at PC10, a tyrolean rope traverse across a wide, fast flowing icy cold river.  Sadly we didn’t actually arrive at it though, as it wasn’t there, we checked 3km of river bank, looked for lights, or smoke from a fire, nothing.  So by midnight we decided to camp, get some rest and looking the daylight the following morning.  We got a great 5 hours of sleep in here, and refreshed and keen to push on we searched again to no avail.  We then took the decision to swim the river.

Having had the river described as uncrossable gets you into a certain mindset.  Nicola luckily is a great paddler and can read rivers very well, so chose a suitable spot for us to attempt the crossing.  We stripped off to our underwear and put everything else in the dry bags in our now bulging packs.  Mike donned a waterproof head camera and was set to dive in with us.  On the count of 3 we went for it, swimming like mad in the icy water, fighting the flow to get to the eddy on the other side.  We dodged the odd branch and clambered onto the bank, cold, exhausted but massively relieved.  It was then we noticed that Andy and Mark had not moved, they were still planted firmly on the far bank.  Andy had hesitated, having never swum a river before, and not really wanting to have his first experience in such a big cold river with a big pack.  Mark had thought he’d best stay to not leave Andy on his own.

With much shouting and encouragement they dived in and swam as hard as they could.  The look of relief on Andy’s face as he climbed out of the water was huge, I don’t think he had enjoyed what he had done, but was very happy to be over and alive!  We quickly got dressed again, happy to have such good dry bags, and amazed at how our OMM packs had kept almost all the water out.  We had a long climb up out of the valley to the next pass, so this got us nice and warm, and after 30minutes or so we were laughing at what we had done, and wondering what the teams, who we could now see on the far bank, were thinking and what they would do.  (It turned out that the crossing was 2km further upstream, as they had been unable to set up the crossing in the planned location for some reason, so all other teams made it across there, not the best experience as the rope dropped people into the water and they all got soaked.)

About 3 hours after the river crossing we had made it to the head of the valley when we head the beat of an approaching helicopter.  The film crew covering the race were flying out to get some amazing aerial shots of the race, and it was such a rush being buzzed by a helicopter only 20ft about your head.  The scenery was once again stunning and all this combined made us press on fast to the next check point.

Dropping into the next valley we saw our first sight of the many beaver dams.  The valley was full of them, and it was going to make for interesting route choice to get past them all.

It turned out the best plan was to just walk down the river, crossing from side to side maybe 20 times for the easiest path.  The water was icy cold, but soon your feet and legs got used to it and it didn’t hurt as much each time!  The river then headed off to the wrong side of the valley, and we took our chances with the beaver dams.  We got to the side of the valley after picking our way past and along dams.  We all marvelled at the size and number of trees that the beavers had chewed down, piles of large wood shavings lay at the side of trees that were almost 50cm in diameter,  what the beavers planned to do with these large trees we were not sure, I think it was just to show off what they can cut down as it seemed to serve no purpose to their dams.

 A climb up and over into the next valley cut off a long detour round the end of the spur, and gaining the height gave us an excellent vantage point to look down on the checkpoint, and for the valley ahead to let us choose the best route.  The forests were not too bad here, and progress was relatively quick, and we were very happy to arrive at PC 11 to be met by music playing and 2 happy Americans enjoying their wilderness camping.

The fire they had going was very enticing, but we were in and out quickly to get to the next PC before darkness would hamper our progress.  Mike left us here to wait for the next team, and we all hoped he would have a long wait.  It had been a great couple of days with him, and we had both learned a lot.

The valley we walked down was named after the boggy moss we walked over, Turba, a pinkish bog that had the capacity to suck you in up to the waist if you trod on the wrong bit.  Luckily we avoided this, and made good fast progress over the slightly energy sapping ground, but we were much happier to have this than to deal with fallen trees and spiky bushes.

Reaching the head of another valley we encountered some huge beaver dams, at one point having to back track as the way round was so long.  It was here that we started hearing weird splashing sounds, and worried that one of us had fallen in kept glancing around to check numbers.  It turned out that it was the beavers making the sound with their tail, splashing it in the water.  We saw 6 or 7 beavers all swimming around one pond, it was great to actually see the animal that had caused so much destruction, and to get an idea of the size of them, and family groups that they live in.

Getting close to PC 12 we found a great ridge with a guanaco path running right up it, this sped us up so we were able to get a great view of the next pass we had to cross in daylight.  The ridge however led into some horrid trees on very steep ground, so we ended up dropping a lot of height to the valley floor to find a better route up, it had aided us for sure, but it is always annoying to lose height.

Following the river up and up we finally saw the PC, a dim light in the distance seemingly miles up in the sky.  Night time distance judgement is very tricky, and it was only a few minutes more that we arrived at the PC at about 11pm.  The stars were out in full and it was an amazing view of silhouetted mountains, it would have been stunning to have been there in daylight, but the stars were very special anyway.

As is our style we headed off quickly and scrambled up the hill side to head through the next pass.  We were later told by the PC staff how fast we had moved up the hill as they filmed and followed our lights moving upwards.

Getting into the pass it was so spectacular; we took 5 minutes to enjoy the darkness and possibly the best stars we had ever seen.  The navigation was greatly aided by the silhouetted mountains showing the location of the valley we were after, but it took all of my mental energy to ensure we found a good route, and definitely headed down the correct valley, all I could see were the American team of last year and how they had had such an epic making a navigation error in a similar place, and how it had almost been disastrous for them.

Fortune often favours those running well, and the valley we headed into was beautiful, it was like walking down a golf fairway, short grass, no trees, and a gentle gradient.  The only issue was that it was well below freezing and the frost in the grass was unbelievably cold on your feet.  At this point it was all I could do to follow Andy’s foot steps.  We headed down until we reached a wall of trees at about 4am, and thought it was a perfect time for a sleep, so jumping into our damp sleeping bags and tent, we grabbed 2hrs of sleep to wake for daybreak and the next push through thick vegetation to get us into the next valley.

Waking up after only 2 hours of sleep is tough, especially when it is hovering around freezing, your sleeping bag is wet, and your shoes are soaking and cold.  The only way to get warm though is to get moving fast.  The team works really well together, we all know what needs doing and get on with it almost with out communtication.

It was a bit demoralising to head straight into a thick forest, but we could sense we were going to get to the end of the trek later that day, and that was all the encouragement we needed.  After a few days a of moving relatively quickly through pleasant valleys, it was painfully slow pushing through the thick undergrowth and fallen trees.  We pressed on, and it felt like forever before we finally made it down to the major valley floor to head to PC 13.  The first sight that met us was a group of horses, running wild in the middle of no where.  The horses were a blessing and hindrance, they had made good tracks through the thick bushes lining the river we had to cross, but due to the wet weather it was incredibly muddy and we almost lost a shoe or two.

Getting to PC 13 we were not overly surprised to see no one there.  Again we were sure of our location, and took a gps mark to prove it if required.  All of us were not keen to swim another river, but realised there was no option, so we looked for a good fast crossing point, and then began the process of stripping off and keeping everything dry in our packs.  Running and jumping as far out into the river over the main flow meant only a very short swim to the other side, but that was plenty of time to get absolutely freezing once more.  Andy, now a past master leapt in with a smile, but when he popped up his face was a total picture.  Needless to say I don’t think he’ll be doing any swimming for a wee while!

There was a great track heading along the valley to our next PC, which we happily trekked quickly along, only to meet after about an hour the staff who were arriving for the PC!  We quickly checked in with them and carried on along our way, buoyed by the nice going and the fact we only had maybe 5hours left to go.

The next PC was a little tricky to find slightly hidden in some bushes, but soon we were off down the coastal path the end of the monster trek.  It was here that we heard a helicopter, and suddenly swooping low overhead with a cameraman seemingly falling out of it, it appeared.  This gave us the boost we needed and we ran along the final section, pushing a good tempo with a huge adrenalin shot rushing through our bodies.  Again the map scale was such that Andy wasn’t able to give an exact location for the end, so countless coves came and went and we began to flag.  Then finally we saw some flags and we raced puppy dog style and Nicola would call it to the transition.

Here we were met by Stepjan the race director who, with a big smile on his face warmly embraced us all and told us how well he felt we had done.  We were ushered into a big tent and sat down where our food bag was waiting.  We all dived in, and got quizzed by the journalists and had plenty of snaps taken of us, I think we were a very happy smiley team just then, knowing we had broken the back of the race, and very happy in the knowledge that we were at least 12hours in the lead.

It was very odd arriving at the dark zone, the next stage was a kayak across the Beagle Channel, and due to the safety aspect we could not start until 6:30am the following day, I think it was about 7:30pm when we arrive in camp, so giving us almost 11hours of rest before we would set off again.

Eating and drinking as much as we could then getting some much needed sleep in. There was no need for any spooning in the huge basecamp tent so we all got a great nights sleep.  However we were woken once or twice by the flapping tent as the gusting wind howled a little outside.  We knew the winds would have to drop if we were to paddle in the morning, and we all wanted to crack on and get to the end, otherwise waiting around longer would cause our bodies to shut down and start to swell, not something we needed if we still had 24hrs of racing ahead of us.

Luckily after a short wait we were given the go ahead, and we climbed into our dry suits and got the boats set up.  It was still blowing a bit as we set off, but it was to be a tail wind the majority of the way and the swell was only about 1metre at best.

The paddle was stunning, mountains freshly dusted with snow, rainbows arching over us, seals, penguins and many other sea birds all around us.  And to cross the Beagle Channel, what a fantastic experience, so few people will ever get the chance to do it, we all felt very lucky to be in such a special place.

The weather sadly closed in towards the end of the kayak stage, and we finally beached after about 6 hours of paddling and were able to relieve our bladders!  The rain was falling and we rapidly got set for the final trek and the finish line, we had been informed that there was no final bike.  As we headed out of the transition on an out and back leg to the top of a mountain with reportedly stunning views we were met by more bush bashing and no clear path.  We pushed on thrashing around the trees and finally after 2 hours came across a marked path, we were very relieved and it enabled us to speed up and arrive at the PC much quicker than we originally thought, and more importantly in daylight!

Heading back from the PC we managed to follow the path a lot further, but it still involved a fair amount of bush bashing, and due to the rain we were now totally soaked on our lower half.  Arriving back at the transition from the kayak, we now had about 20km ahead of us, and we thought this would be on a nice path, so as we left the Darwin building we were thinking we would be done in 3 hours, and had plans to celebrate Andy’s birthday in style the next day.

30 minutes down the trail our hopes were dashed as we realised the nice path we were on was the wrong one, and our was infact another bush bash to start with, following red and yellow flashes on intermittent trees, tricky at the best of times, but in heavy snow, yes it was dumping it down by now, and when beavers had thoughtlessly gnawed down trees with the markings on, it was down to the map and compass to get us up over the pass and heading to the coast.

The snow and wind were very heavy, and we had cut our kit down to a minimum thinking it would be a quick section, we pushed on hard to keep warm and get down off the pass to the coast.  It was shortly after the summit that I managed to drop the map, I think while eating some much needed chocolate.  We decided there was no need to search for it as all we had to do was walk north till we hit the road.

As the clock ticked on, and the snow howled at our backs we just walked in single file on a bearing, but occasionally I checked my watch, and at 12:05 am I turned and whispered to Mark and Nicola, and in unison we turned to Andy and all sang him ‘Happy Birthday’, his 42nd birthday, once again spent in Patagonia with the 3 of us in pretty awful conditions, what a lucky chap.

This we did, and again with fatigue setting in after pushing hard for 24hrs, the coast seemed to take forever to arrive, what seemed like km after km passed and we still seemed no closer to the bright lights of Ushuaia on the far shore of the Beagle Channel.

Then at 6am we stumbled upon a wee track that led us 100m later to the main road.  We were very relieved, but now had a new dilemma, which way do we turn, I had been aiming off to the right, so Nicola made the call to turn left, maybe it was women’s  intuition, but 200m down the track we saw a wee distance sign reading 36.2km, this we guessed would be the distance to Puerto Williams, and we knew the final bike section should have been 38km so hoped that this meant we were on the right line to the finish.

After 10 minutes of plodding along the road we saw some tents, Mark thought it was just a campsite, and as we asked him how many campsites he thought there would be out here, and especially with large Wenger tents he suddenly realised that this was it, we had reached the finish.

We were led 200m further down the road to a wee headland to where the official finish was, flags fluttering in the dawn light and the large race clock there showing our time as 5 ½ days.  Champagne was popped and sprayed and we were once again given a huge bear hug from Stepjan.  It was fantastic to finish, and to win a second time just brilliant.

I don’t think I showed much emotion on the finish line, that was left for Andy who struggled to hold back the tears.  For me, the emotion came before the end, completing such a journey with such great friends, in such wild and remote conditions was such a great achievement, the finish just came as relief.

Once back in the real world and seeing messages from loved ones, friends and family however really made the emotion come to the surface.  We race in a very cut off bubble with no idea what is going on in the outside world, and when that bubble is popped finally and everything rushes in its an amazing feeling.  The emails, texts and phone calls I got really made it hit home and I was very smiley for the rest of the time we were in Chile.

The race was not over though, 6 other teams were battling it out behind us, and it was great to see them all when they arrived in Puerto Williams the following day and we were able to exchange stories of the epics we had all had out on the course.

The following day we were told to be at the docks for 12pm to load onto a ferry to head back to Punta Arenas.  When we arrived to be faced with a Chilean Naval landing vessel we were not surprised at the strings that the race organisation had pulled.  We all piled on, and after a final meal set sail for a 36hr journey.  The ‘cruise’ was stunning taking us past so many magnificent mountains, glaciers, fjords and remote wild islands that so few people would see.  Early the next morning when only a few people were up, dolphins were seen leaping in the bow wave, and in the distance a whale lazily rose and sloped beneath the surface giving us the stunning sight of the tail fluke flying up into the air.

It was a fantastic trip, to spend time with all the other racers and support crew, to enjoy the surroundings in a relaxed manner, and to wind down before heading full on into the real world.

The prize giving the following night was a great affair, and we all felt fantastic standing up in front of the whole race to receive the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race Trophy.

We would all like to thank our sponsors enormously for their support and fantastic kit that we get to use.  This year we had pretty much the best kit you could ask for for the conditions that we faced and we were very happy with our kit selection.

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